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Parliamentary Committees in United Kingdom

A parliamentary committee is a small group of Members created and empowered by the House to perform one or more specific tasks (with exceptions). There are a number of different types of committees and they are formed on a temporary or permanent basis. They usually consist of Members drawn from all recognized parties in the House.

Parliamentary committees also offer a more informal setting, in which Members have the opportunity to develop close working relations with their colleagues. Moreover, if they remain members of the same committees for a sufficient length of time, they are able to develop or strengthen their expertise in specific fields.

History

Committees of the British Parliament have existed in some form since the fourteenth century.[4] The precursors to the first parliamentary committees were the individuals selected as Triers and Examiners of Petitions,[5] and the earliest duty of committees, as we know them, was to draw up legislation to carry into effect those prayers or petitions to which the Crown had acceded. By the middle of the sixteenth century, committees formed part of the regular machinery of parliament, modifying or “improving” legislation to which the House of Commons had agreed in principle. Committees had their own meeting room in the Palace of Westminster and committee practice had acquired many of its modern characteristics, including the more relaxed rules governing debate, the right to appoint subcommittees and the right to summon witnesses. However, the House was always careful to exercise control over, and responsibility for, the matters it referred to committee.

At that time, there were two types of committees: large committees of 30 to 40 members, and small committees of up to 15 members. The large committees, often composed of different classes of Members (professional, regional, functional), were established to consider substantive matters. In the beginning, they were always classified as “special” committees, that is, bodies created for a particular purpose and disbanded as soon as that purpose was discharged. Over time, some of these large committees were given sessional orders of reference (or mandates) which remained in effect for the duration of a session. As “standing” committees, they were charged with an area of responsibility, such as the consideration of a class of bills or a particular department of House business.[6] By the middle of the seventeenth century, a fairly elaborate system of standing committees was in place, and that system remained virtually unchanged over the next two centuries.[7]

The smaller committees, composed of only those Members who had been specifically named by the House, became known as “select” committees. While any Member could attend select committee proceedings, only those specifically named to the committee by the House could participate in the deliberations.[8]

By contrast, it became common in the large committees to allow whoever attended to participate in the discussion. As the practice of allowing any Member to speak in a large committee evolved, they came to be known as the “general” or “grand” committees. Ultimately, the membership of these committees equalled that of the House itself and they were referred to as Committees of the Whole.[9] Grand committees became the preferred forum for the consideration of “bills of great concernment, and chiefly in bills to impose a tax, or raise money from the people … to the end there may be opportunity for fuller debates, for that at a committee the members have liberty to speak as often as they shall see cause, to one question”.[10]

Britain’s revolutionary Long Parliament (1640‑60),[11] which assumed all the powers of administration and government on behalf of the Commonwealth, effectively did away with grand committees and ruled by means of small committees. Committees of the Whole were seen to be “highly inconvenient”, affording as they did equal debating rights to the opposition.[12]

With the Restoration,[13] Parliament, in 1661, once again reverted to grand committees to consider its most significant orders of business and, by 1700, it had become common to examine bills in Committees of the Whole House following second reading.[14] Over the years, various committees on reform continued to suggest that legislation again be referred to the small committees, but the House continued to prefer the greater openness available in the larger forum.

Source: (Canada) House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, 2009

Resources

See Also

  • Parliament

Notes

[4] For a full description of the evolution of committees in the British Parliament, see Redlich, J., The Procedure of the House of Commons: A Study of its History and Present Form, Vol. II, translated by A.E. Steinthal, New York: AMS Press, 1969 (reprint of 1908 ed.), pp. 203‑14.

[5] For further information, see Chapter 22, “Public Petitions”.

[6] In 1571, for the first time, committees of this nature were appointed for “the subsidy”, grievances and petitions, religion and disputed elections. From 1592 onwards, elections and privileges were considered by a single sessional committee. In 1621, the House instituted a grand standing committee on trade and another on the administration of justice. These along with the committees on religion, grievances and the smaller, that is select, Privileges and Elections Committee, constituted the system of standing committees as it was to remain for two centuries (Redlich, pp. 206‑8).

[7] Redlich, p. 208.

[8] Redlich, p. 207.

[9] For further information on the development of Committees of the Whole, see Chapter 19, “Committees of the Whole House”. By 1628, all the standing committees, except that on Privileges, were made Committees of the Whole House. The Committee on Privileges remained a select committee (Redlich, p. 209).

[10] Scobell, quoted in Redlich, p. 208.

[11] The Long Parliament sat during the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth in Great Britain. See Davies, G., The Oxford History of England: The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938 (reprint of 1937 ed.), pp. 97, 172.

[12] Redlich, p. 210.

[13] Charles II was restored to the Throne of Great Britain in 1660. See Davies, pp. 256‑8.

[14] Redlich, pp. 210‑1.



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  • Article Name: Parliamentary Committees
  • Author: International
  • Description: A parliamentary committee is a small group of Members created and empowered by the House to perform one or more specific [...]

This entry was last updated: July 8, 2017



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